Aren’t Stress and Anxiety the Same Thing?

Anxiety and Stress

It’s exasperating to read a teasing question in the title to an article, and then have to plod all the way to the end of it for an answer. Let’s prevent the nuisance: The answer is “No. Stress and anxiety are not the same thing. They have subtle but important differences.”

Defining Stress

Stress is a matter of temporary tension or strain that irritate a person’s mental state aka focus, and often their emotions, too. Think of difficult family, business or social relationships, or the confusing, mistake-riddled aftermath of the death of someone you love or appreciate, and you’ll recognize the problems as stressful. Those complications have clearly defined and easily recognizable causes aka “stressors,” as in “So and so makes me feel…” or “X, sometimes Y, leave me feeling limited, unfulfilled, unhappy, self-conscious…” fill in the blanks as you wish.

The mental/emotional response aka stress that you feel in those situations (work, school, parties, bereavement, etc.), or because of those people (relatives, neighbors, colleagues, etc.), is time-limited. The stress ends when you separate from the problem(s). Think of racing to be on time for a flight, confronted by a criminal, or trying to coordinate a multi-faceted task and wondering if things will turn out in your favor. Those are stressful responses. They leave you breathing harder than usual, with headaches or pain somewhere else in your body, an upset stomach, perhaps feeling sleepier than usual. They and similar reactions are physical responses to a sense of stress. Your behavior might change under stress too, as in becoming bossy, moody or withdrawn.

Stress in the USA is increasing for many valid reasons such as the fear of terrorism, riots, other crimes and other sorts of pressure. USNEWS&WorldReport recently noted that “Stress levels are bubbling up.” You can study the article at Survey: Stress in America Increases for the First Time in 10 Years. The Global Organization for Stress agrees about the prevalence of the problem, as indicated at STRESS FACTS | Global Organization for Stress.

If you feel self-conscious about your sense of stress, perhaps knowing that many, many Americans experience it, too, will ease your concerns. Stress is a normal part of life. It stops being normal when it disrupts your life. You can do some fact-finding about that at 2015 Stress in America Snapshot – American Psychological Association.

What of death as a reason for stress, though? It’s a permanent situation but the stress following it need not be. Adjustment to the stress you feel over someone’s death comes in stages. We know this from the work of a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She made a decisive improvement in how people of the 20th century and beyond cope with loss due to her innovative near-death studies. Her On Death and Dying book, a classic in psychological and lay literature, presented the five stages of grief to the wider world, helping people to understand the importance of grieving as necessary in order to go on with life. A series of emotions experienced by terminally ill patients prior to death, and by people who outlived loved ones, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They’re quite self-explanatory and they are not limited to happening in one order or the other. The stages can interrupt or coincide with each other, and they can pop up out of nowhere even after you had thought the problematic thinking to be over. If you want to understand the stages of grief better, be sure to read the On Death and Dying book and to see this Wikipedia reference, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. You can buy videos and books on the grief recovery topic from the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation at http://www.ekrfoundation.org/store/.

Anxiety 411

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a different problem. It’s an enduring sense of worry, a reactionary fear with a cause that’s hard to pin to pin down, or maybe it’s that exam looming on your calendar, or wondering if someone will agree to marry, hire or befriend you. You might have had a frightening experience with an animal, person, device or location, and be fearful of anything resembling them ever after. Anxiety bothers a person around the clock, not only in specific situations and for limited amounts of time.

Anxiety leaves a person fearful of specific situations, sometimes any situation at all. Anxious people tend to feel doomed, frightened, angry, cautious or unduly vigilant about a specific issue even after the stressor stops being part of their life. If the unhappiness reaches the point of interfering with your ability to function day after day, it’s severe anxiety. Your digestive system might be erupting in diarrhea or passing gas, belching, even in sour or bitter squirts of digestive juices in your mouth and throat. Sleeplessness, constant headaches, feeling fuzzy-headed or being temperamental are also signs of anxiety, stress that has lasted longer than necessary for dealing with it. Tics and stutters or other symptoms of nervousness might develop as the anxiety increasingly affects its sufferers.

If you suffer from anxiety, you’re far from alone. Millions of Americans have plenty of company from coast to coast, as indicated at Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The National Institute of Mental Health Anxiety Disorders page can educate you even more. College campuses are known for the problem, as almost any instructor, student or health clinic therapist can tell you. Relevant information is available at Anxiety: The Most Common Mental Health Diagnosis in College.

The prestigious Mayo Clinic has an informative explanation about anxiety, and how it can develop into a worse problem over time, at Anxiety – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic.

By the way, remember reading the answer to the question in the title of this article? I provided it in the opening lines, to quell a potential sense of stress in you, my readers. By actively reducing stress, we allow better focus on what we’re doing and thinking. Use that example of simple stress reduction to improve your life and someone else’s. Remember the short-lasting example as very different from long-lasting anxiety. That can help you to figure out exactly which problem is at play in your life or someone else’s.

Are you ready to consider how to settle down from either stress or anxiety? Let’s look at some possibilities for doing so, as follows:

  • Calm breathing exercises can work calming wonders. By actively changing your focus from “danger” or “problem” to calm breathing, you end or prevent your brain’s focus on misery. That stops a chemical chain reaction that inevitably leads to physical or mental health disruptions. They become a sort of endless loop that incapacitates anxious people.

One method for ending the endless loop of anxiety plus its psychological and biological responses is Logotherapy. Invented by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy focuses on finding meaning or purpose in suffering. A person literally chooses insights for their personal betterment so that they gain insights to help themselves and other people rather than be engulfed by grief. This Viktor Frankl: Why believe in others | TED Talk | TED.com presentation can educate in Frankl’s own words.

There are other activities that can improve your perception about troubling things. All of the calming speakers, writers and methods presented above, and elsewhere, are focused on acceptance, on admitting that what is, is, and on facing the issue(s) forthrightly. As motivational speaker Byron Katie says, “When we argue with reality, we lose—but only 100 percent of the time” Two of her videos present clear explanations of almost anyone’s ability to dramatically improve their own emotional wellbeing all by themselves. The first is How to stop suffering? Byron Katie – YouTube. The second is The Work: The Power of Self-Inquiry .

If the above ideas don’t help you to see life in a more neutral, calming way, you can consult a competent therapist online or in an office. They’re equipped to help you to improve your quality of life.

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Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani is a popular writer whose byline has appeared worldwide in print and online. A certified Health Information Management professional, she is a member of Get Help Israel. Certified in Spiritual Chaplaincy (End of Life issues) and in counseling skills, her life coaching for ill people puts healthy perspective into a clients’ success plan for achieving desired goals.